Church, Tribe, Catholic School, and Some other thoughts on Unity:
Yesterday we heard a sermon on Unity, featuring John 17.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
It was a compelling sermon about long-range unity–that it is our union with Christ and each other that will finally make He and the Father known to the world.
I go to a small church by Southern standards (where I’m from). To hear this sermon, I was visiting another small church where I have some friends. It was one of the pastors from my church preaching at a friend’s church, because their small staff was deeply taxed by funeral and all that led up to it. A phone call request for my friend from this other church to pray for me sparked the idea to bring in a neighbor-pastor to share the load.
You see, our churches are just too small here and the workload is too large for us to make it on our own. We don’t really have the luxury of squabbling over aesthetics or territory. Or doctrinal minutiae. Perhaps because the harvest is great and the workers are few, the burden of distrust is heavier than the burden of disagreement.
Here, we sometimes find the ability to love our neighbors outside the church depends on our ability to love our neighbors inside the other ones.
And those times are a real gift.
I believe they spare us from having to face the full force of our own selfishness–a selfishness the church knows well, and the very kind that keep people from knowing Jesus and the One who sent Him.
Seth Godin has been talking about Tribes for a while. He isn’t original. (Not that he claims to be). He talks about how tribes have the capacity to affect change–what a tribe does becomes a movement.
Which is exactly what we saw in Acts 2.
The Fellowship of the Believers
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The tribe of Christ-followers became a global movement that changed the face of the planet for the better. Thanks, Seth. We spotted that, too.
But what he doesn’t talk about is daily life in those tribes. Most of us find the reality of Christian Community very rarely measures up to this moment had by the early church. Daily life in a tribe is hard work. Usually, it’s so hard, that the originally unifying ideas are overridden by the selfish, resentful, careless–broken–way we live.
Someone goes first.
Someone serves first, without any expectation of reward.
Someone gives first.
Someone apologizes first.
Someone forgives first.
Someone owns up first.
Someone calls first.
Someone gives up–gives up their right to be right–first.
What we have is more than an idea unifying us. We have the presence of The One who went first to the Cross. And for the tribe to survive, we have to go there, too.
We have to be at war with confusion, frustration, and resentment.We have to go to the place we fear the most, or go to the last place where we’d want to be.
We must be great forgivers.
We must stick with each other when we are grieved because people who should know better don’t do what we expect them to.
We have to give each other permission to hurt and hurt us, because we know that in Christ, there’s no permanent damage. That Reconciliation and Resurrection are what we live for. Because we live with Hope.
As Christians, we must be the champions of Restoration.
Above all, we have to love each other deeply, knowing that it will cost us a lot, because love covers a multitude of sins.
I work at a Catholic school without being Catholic. The struggle for unity is real. But so is the Presence. When it comes time for the Eucharist, I so long to be in union with my people, the closed communion table grieves me. I truly believe that Christ is present in a unique way at the Breaking of the Bread, but that isn’t enough. I comprehend why that is the case, and I love the Eucharist and the chance to worship at school so much, I respect the limits.
But it makes me define unity differently.
My issues with the Catholic church and its practices are way older than I am, and people way smarter than I am have been asking my questions for hundreds of years. They’re not going to be reconciled by me making a fuss today.
To worship here means to take the path of least disruption. To participate in the Mass where I can, without calling attention to differences in a way that would disrupt anyone else’s ability to hear from God. It’s His show. Who would I be to steal the spotlight with my stance-taking?
Here, unity doesn’t mean acquiescence; I deeply remain not-Catholic.
But it does mean acknowledgement: I can acknowledge that there are people at work with me, loving our colleagues and students, who have set apart Christ as Lord in their hearts. We are united through Him with the job to Teach and to Heal.
And that’s enough work for today.
I don’t have time to focus on the differences: what we have to do for the souls of our students is already more than we can handle.
Good thing we’re in it together.
And this reminds me: true unity isn’t for it’s own sake. It isn’t one giant love-fest where we sit around and celebrate each other, in prayer or at Birthday Parties. It’s when we work together to bring the Way, the Truth, and the Life to the world.
It’s when we gather all the churches to restore parks, schools, landscapes, and habitats.
It’s when two churches share the burden of loving and discipling the same college students.
It’s for the sake of Mission.
The world will know when we love each other well. Whether or not we like each other (today), whether or not we’re hurtful or hurting, we are here together for such a time as this.
So we fight hard to love each other well so the world sees. Because many will belong before they believe.
But if we aren’t at work together, it’s tough to see the point of unity.
And if we forget it’s for the sake of the world, it won’t seem worth it.
Madeleine L’Engle, quoting a French priest, put it this way:
“To love anyone is to hope in him always. From the moment at which we begin to judge anyone, to limit our confidence in him, from the moment at which we identify [pigeon-hole him] and so reduce him to that, we cease to love him, and he ceases to be able to become better…we must dare to love in a world that does not know love.”
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